The Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

March 8, 2010

Today, I am presenting my final annual report to the Council in my capacity as Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). My second term as Representative will come to an end in the fall of this year. I am grateful to all who supported my work over the last six years.

When I came into office in 2004, the number of persons displaced within their own countries by violence and conflict was an estimated 25 million. Today, the magnitude of conflict induced displacement remains about the same. In addition, we see a growing number of persons displaced by natural disasters, in particular earthquakes and climate-related disasters such as windstorms and flooding. Many of the internally displaced persons I met on my missions early in my mandate remain in protracted situations, others were able to return but continue to struggle to rebuild their lives and still others have become victims of arbitrary displacement since I came into office. I know of hardly any case where those responsible for arbitrary displacement and other human rights violations perpetrated against the displaced have been held accountable. Impunity prevails in too many countries affected by internal displacement. Too many internally displaced women and girls remain exposed to sexual and gender-based violence or other forms of abject exploitation, too many displaced children have no chance whatsoever to access even basic education or are recruited into armed forces and armed groups, and too many men have lost any hope to regain their ability to care for their loved ones.  


And yet, as this mandate comes to its end, there are considerable achievements to report: 

  • Strengthening the Normative Framework for Protection

While there is no international convention on the rights of internally displaced persons, the normative framework for their protection is much stronger today than it was six years ago. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which I have been asked to promote, have gained international recognition as the key international framework for the protection of internally displaced persons. At regional and sub-regional levels, the adoption of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention) and the IDP Protocol of the Pact on Security, Stability and Development in the Great Lakes Region (the Great Lakes Pact) are a breakthrough towards binding international law. Even more importantly, an increasing number of countries have developed domestic laws and policies based on the Guiding Principles. In many cases, this mandate has been able to support these initiatives, including, e.g. in Nepal. I have just returned from Kenya, where the Government has taken the initiative to draft a National Policy on IDPs. Next week, I plan to travel to Chad, in order to attend a workshop of the Government, UNDP and my mandate to further the development of an action plan to support durable solutions for IDPs and thereby make progress on one of the key recommendations of my visit in February of last year.[1] I also support the process of incorporating the Guiding Principles into national legislation in the Central African Republic and I continue to support the implementation of the IDP Policy and Action Plan in Georgia. I welcome the current work in Turkey for a National Framework that would allow resolution of the remaining IDP problem. I intend to return to these countries in the coming months to support these processes. I also welcome the fact that the government of Yemen recently established an executive unit to deal with its IDPs and has asked the international community to lend support.  

While a strong normative framework is a necessary condition for the protection of the human rights of internally displaced persons, it remains insufficient as long as its implementation remains weak in too many parts of the world. 

  • Mainstreaming the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons into Humanitarian Action and Recovery Activities

Humanitarian and development organizations and agencies play a key role in protecting and assisting internally displaced persons and it is important that they integrate the human rights of IDPs into their work. The participation of the mandate at all levels of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the primary forum for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, has been crucial to my task of mainstreaming the rights of IDPs. And progress was made in this regard. For instance, we have worked collectively on pressing issues such as displacement related to natural disasters and the effects of climate change and have developed and applied relevant guidance such as the Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters.[2] In close co-operation with the Global Clusters on Protection and Early Recovery and with the IASC, my mandate also developed and just revised the Framework for Durable Solutions for IDPs.[3] This document is annexed to this year’s annual report. Providing guidance to humanitarian and development actors on how to support national and local authorities in finding durable solutions, the Framework for Durable Solutions may also be a useful reference document for Member States.  

In addition, the mandate has worked effectively with other parts of the United Nations system, such as the Peacebuilding Commission on the Central African Republic and the Mediation Support Unit of the Department for Political Affairs. In cooperation with the latter, my mandate developed a publication for mediators on internal displacement and peace processes that was released last week.[4] 

Country Situations 

Regarding the countries I have visited during the course of my mandate, the following can be reported: improvements of the security situation or peace agreements have allowed large numbers of people to return to their homes in Southern Sudan, Nepal, Timor-Leste, Uganda and Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent in Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic and Kenya. However, in many of these situations the challenge of sustainable reintegration remains, particularly due to a lack of sufficient and effective development interventions at the community level. Others, among them often the most vulnerable, remain in displacement. 

Many internally displaced persons remain in protracted displacement with little prospect of return, particularly in the South Caucasus and the Balkans. Situations such as those in Darfur, Eastern Chad and parts of Somalia already are or risk becoming protracted. Some countries, in particular Georgia and Azerbaijan and to some extent also Bosnia, Serbia and Colombia, have started to improve the living conditions of these people while awaiting return or other durable solutions, although problems remain particularly in the area of livelihoods and for IDPs with special needs.  

Then there are those situations in which IDPs continue to suffer new displacements as a consequence of acts of violence. Such acts may even amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, as we can see in eastern DRC or Somalia. People are also fleeing the consequences of military and security operations in Afghanistan and in parts of Colombia.  

Engagement with States affected by internal displacement has been at the heart of the mandate’s work. I have sought to have a constructive, transparent and sustained dialogue with States, one which encourages rights-based and pragmatic solutions to the concerns identified, while also acknowledging good practices and progress made. In this context, allow me to focus briefly on the three country situations addressed in the reports submitted as addenda to my annual report: 

and Montenegro


Last June, I carried out a follow-up visit to the mission I undertook in 2005 to the then State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.[6] I remain concerned about the very low number of returns of IDPs to and within Kosovo. Authorities in Pristina/e expressed their commitment to facilitate the return of displaced persons, regardless of their ethnicity. However, due to entrenched patterns of discrimination and a lack of support from authorities, in particular at the municipal level, there have been very few sustainable returns.  While I am conscious of the profound political disagreements that exist, I call on the Government of Serbia and the Kosovo authorities to find pragmatic ways to cooperate at the technical level in order to address the situation of internal displacement. By way of example, I would like to highlight the importance of entrusting UNHCR with an intermediary role to allow the Kosovo Property Agency to be accessible to people in and outside Kosovo. I also reiterate that relocation of Roma in camps affected by lead poisoning in Northern Mitrovica/Mitrovicë remains a very urgent priority in order to protect the health of this population, particularly of the children in these camps.  

I welcome efforts undertaken by the Government of Serbia to improve the living conditions of those unable or unwilling to return. To be able to better identify and assist IDPs with specific vulnerabilities and special needs and to facilitate planning as well as donor support, I strongly encourage the Government of Serbia to organize a needs-based identification of IDPs in need of such support. 

Somalia [7]

Last October I visited Somalia. I was appalled by the degree of violence, including sexual violence, that the more than1.5 million IDPs, mostly women and children, suffer. In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis has worsened with the withdrawal of WFP from South and Central Somalia due to security constraints. I am particularly concerned about the fate of the estimated half a million IDPs in the Afgooye corridor who can hardly be reached by humanitarian assistance and who are increasingly exposed to the dangers of armed conflict. Impunity continues to prevail, making protection extremely difficult. Renewed fighting seems to be imminent and I call on all parties to the conflict to scrupulously adhere to international humanitarian law and to do their outmost to spare the civilian population from harm and to avoid another wave of large-scale displacement. Many IDPs seek safety in Puntland or Somaliland, placing further strain on the limited local resources and services. Opportunities exist to better protect these IDPs and improve their living conditions but more robust efforts by humanitarian and human rights organizations and the donor community are urgently required. 

The Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia[8]
In November 2009, I visited the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia to follow up on the mission to Georgia of October 2008. Although the situation is not a humanitarian crisis, the very slow pace of reconstruction of housing makes life difficult for those displaced within this region. I call on all parties to take all necessary steps to ensure that persons displaced by the recent and past conflicts are able to enjoy their right to return voluntarily to their former homes in safety and dignity, and to guarantee recovery of their property and possessions, or where this is impossible, obtain compensation or other just reparation. Until a comprehensive and durable solution to the conflict is reached, pragmatic agreements should be found to improve the situation of internally displaced persons and other conflict-affected populations. I am particularly concerned about the hardships caused by the almost total closure of the administrative boundary line.  

Missions envisaged 

During the remainder of my term I plan to carry out two more missions to Iraq and to Sudan. I acknowledge with gratitude that the Government of Iraq has extended an invitation to me and I hope that the Government of Sudan will be able to indicate suitable dates for a visit. 


Despite progress made, much work remains to be done in an increasingly difficult environment. I believe we must face seven major challenges:[9] 

  1. Moving beyond ’camps and conflicts’: internal displacement in all its forms.

An IDP is typically perceived as somebody living in destitution in a camp after fleeing violence and armed conflict. The reality, however, is far more complex. The majority of IDPs live outside camps with host families or are dispersed in urban areas. Their needs as well as those of the communities receiving them must be much better addressed in the future. In other situations, IDPs remain “invisible” because governments deny their very existence, e.g. by calling them “dislocated” people or by not recognizing certain causes of displacement as relevant.  

Regarding the causes, natural disasters displace more people every year than conflicts. Climate change contributes to this phenomenon as well. In addition, displacement resulting from forced evictions linked to development projects is also on the rise. I urge States and all those dealing with situations of displacement to recognize and address these causes. 

  1. Addressing multiple layers of vulnerability and discrimination.

All IDPs face vulnerabilities that non-displaced persons do not experience. However, certain groups of IDPs require particular attention. These include women, especially women heading households, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities or chronic illnesses, and those belonging to ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous peoples. In practice, the specific concerns and needs of these groups are often overlooked and must be better addressed. 

  1. Supporting States with limited capacity

Sovereignty entails responsibility. Addressing internal displacement is therefore first and foremost a responsibility of governments. However, much of the internal displacement today occurs in States with limited capacity to prevent or respond to displacement. The challenge lies in supporting these States in efforts to adopt and implement comprehensive policies and laws on internal displacement, while ensuring that donors, humanitarian and development agencies assist them with the necessary expertise and resources.  

  1. Strengthening the international response

The introduction of the cluster system has led to progress in the coordination of humanitarian action. Yet, humanitarian agencies can still do more to assume their joint responsibilities in respect to the protection of IDPs, especially in the area of disaster-related displacement. Humanitarian agencies can also improve their capacity to make the concept of protection more operational. 

With regard to early recovery, there is an urgent need to bridge the gap between emergency humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction and development efforts that I have observed in too many countries. It is unacceptable and shameful that, many years after a crisis, IDPs are often in a worse situation than they were during the emergency phase. More flexible funding mechanisms as well as a readiness of humanitarian and development actors to work hand in hand already early on in  crises are a must.  

  1. Defending humanitarian space

Particularly worrisome is the increase in attacks on humanitarian workers, arbitrary denial of humanitarian access and deliberate obstruction of humanitarian work that we see in several countries. The blurring of lines between international political and peacekeeping interventions and humanitarian work contributes to this trend. IDPs and other crisis-affected populations will continue to suffer the consequences unless we develop new, innovative approaches such as assistance by “remote control” or development interventions in the midst of a crisis that strengthen the resilience of communities at risk of displacement or the absorption capacities of host communities. 

  1. Ensuring accountability for arbitrary displacement

Arbitrary displacement is a violation of the Guiding Principles and the binding international norms they reflect. In its most egregious forms, arbitrary displacement may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes. If we are serious about preventing arbitrary displacement, we have to end the impunity prevailing in many displacement situations and bring perpetrators of such crimes to justice and ensure that victims receive appropriate reparations, including compensation. 

  1. Ending the politics of protracted displacement

In many countries, people languish in situations of protracted displacement due to a lack of political will to find durable solutions for them. As I have emphasized during my term, durable solutions, based on voluntary and informed decisions of those concerned, are the best way to protect the human rights of internally displaced persons and to provide a measure of reparation for the violation of these rights. 

These are indeed significant challenges, but they are not insurmountable ones.  I would like to express my trust and hope that this Council and the States gathered here today will strive to meet them, and secure the protection and rights of those internally displaced.  Internal displacement is more than an internal problem. It requires the collective will of the international community and its concerted efforts to be effectively addressed and ultimately prevented. 

Thank you for your attention.

[1] This was one key recommendation of my mission in February of last year (see A/HRC/13/31/Add.5).

[2] See A/HRC/4/38/Add.1. The Guidelines are currently under revision. Cf. also A/HRC/10/13/Add.1 on the protection of IDPs in situations of natural disasters.

[3] See A/HRC/13/21/Add.4, available in all six United Nations languages.

[4] Integrating Internal Displacement in Peace Processes and Agreements: A Guide for Mediators, The Peacemaker’s Toolkit Series, United States Institute of Peace and Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, Washington DC, 2010. 

[5] Any reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, is made in full respect of Security Council Resolution 1244 and shall be understood in accordance with the United Nations policy of strict neutrality on the status of Kosovo.

[6] See A/HRC/13/21/Add.1, which builds on E/CN.4/2006/71/Add.5.

[7] See A/HRC/13/21/Add.2.

[8] See A/HRC/13/21/Add. 3, which builds on A/HRC/10/13/Add.2.

[9] See A/HRC/13/21, paras. 39 ff.